Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 18;   May 3, 2006: Deliver the Headline First

Deliver the Headline First

by

When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
A headline about the War of the Worlds Broadcast

A headline from the Chicago Sun-Times about the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. From the report of the US Federal Communications Commission, courtesy US National Archives.

Dave looked impatiently at his watch, and then thrust his right arm forward, palm first, signaling "Halt." Everyone in the room stopped breathing, and Eileen instantly knew she was in trouble. She stopped her report in mid-sentence. "Dave?" she said, looking at him. "Something?"

"Yeah, something," he replied sternly. "What's the headline?"

"I was just getting to the headline. Can I continue?"

Wrong answer. Eileen did continue, but it might have been smarter to have just answered him with her headline. Smarter still: lead with the headline, and then offer the details as an option.

And that's my headline: Deliver the Headline First. For the details, read on.

The headline is the consequence, not the reason why
The headline is the consequence of the situation, taken as far as you can take it. For instance, a headline might be: "We can't finish on schedule." But if you've worked out the range of finish dates, the headline might be: "We'll be late by three months with 95% confidence."
The four major classes of details are evidence, reasoning, hunches, and drivers
Evidence is fact. Reasoning is the chain of inferences drawn from the evidence. Hunches are informed guesses, consistent with evidence. Drivers are perceived benefits or risks that you combine with evidence, reasoning, and hunches to reach a headline.
The So-What test helps you find the headline
Headline-first gives you
more control of
the conversation
Say the headline to yourself. Then ask, "So What?" If you have an answer, then it's probably a better candidate headline. Repeat until you can't answer "So What?" For instance, if you start with, "We'll be late by three months," and your so-what answer is "We need to figure out now what to do," then perhaps the real headline is "We'll be late by three months and we need to figure out now what to do."
Headline-first isn't better — it's just preferred
Most managers prefer the headline first because they want to know possible consequences. Since they sometimes also want the details — the evidence, reasoning, hunches, and drivers — offer the option: "Do you want the detail?"
Headline-first gives you more control of the conversation
Suspense tends to encourage people to imagine trouble. Delivering the headline first guides the minds of the recipients. If they do ask for detail, then as they listen, the headline guides their thinking. If, instead, you deliver detail first, they don't know where you're going, and they might imagine things less wonderful (or even worse) than your headline.

Sometime soon, you'll have an opportunity to deliver some news. If you don't normally deliver news headline-first, try it, then tell me how it went. Headline first, please. Go to top Top  Next issue: Social Distancing for Pandemic Flu  Next Issue

When delivering bad news, we have a tendency to be indirect — to avoid clear statements that describe the event and its consequences. This practice can actually make things worse, and it can create significant additional cost. See "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006, for more.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBbmJspwaXmbkfVhener@ChacecPyYaaJOJflBjcToCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

A debate between elephantsYou and I
In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source of tension and stress.
U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
The robotic explorer OpportunityDefinitions of Insanity
When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
Bill Moyers — host of the PBS program Bill Moyers JournalAsking Clarifying Questions
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
Two barnacles affixed to the shell of a green musselGetting Into the Conversation
In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation can be challenging for some.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningComing July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
Masonry archesAnd on July 12: Performance Issues for Non-Supervisors
If, in part of your job, you're a non-supervisory leader, such as a team lead or a project manager, you face special challenges when dealing with performance issues. Here are some guidelines for non-supervisors. Available here and by RSS on July 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrencgoOJpeYVmcfuzykner@ChacfCeUUazxGYOVMQBDoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.